More plentiful than …

An ambiguous metaphor for plenty, since it is entirely subjective whether you consider hope to be plentiful or not.  In other words, this is only a relative plenty. See other hope related metaphors and similes, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot or...

Six ways to get lost

This is from The Little Clay Cart, a Sanskrit play probably composed around the 2nd century BC, and commonly attributed to a possibly mythical king and playwright called S(h)udraka.  I liked the rambling explanation of the simple word 'lost' through half a...

Sticking like a burr

I've heard people describe someone as sticking like glue, or like Velcro, and burrs were the original inspiration for this modern sticky material. Woodnoth, then, was a bit of a boring hanger-on of the poet George Herbert. 'Woodnoth sticking to Herbert...

The press and vice

An extraordinary and vivid image of sin as something that forces pain to infiltrate every vein.  Given the more pious age in which Herbert wrote, and his own great piety, I found this arresting and thought-provoking. It also neatly concatenates the two...

Good strong tea

A novel way to signal strong tea, its being so solid that it can support a mouse's weight.  The more common version of the same idea has the tea 'so strong you could stand a spoon up in it'. For another tea-related simile, less innocuous, see Mervyn...

An aching loss

The occasional ache of something long lost - Leigh Fermor's likening it to an old wound; more less healed, but can still give you gip on a bad day. 'The loss of the journal still aches now and then like an old wound in bad weather.' For a quote-mosaic...

Someday the history of metaphor will be written and we shall at last grasp all the truths and misconceptions in which this intensely speculative subject abounds.  

Source: Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010, p. 45

Metaphors and similes are an imaginative galaxy which greater minds than mine have explored. 

That doesn’t stop me gathering dazzling and original examples to enrich the common stock and enliven human exchange, expanding the choice of vigorous and beautiful ways to sharpen how we think, read, write and speak.

The taste of brass

You can feel it can't you - that cold-surface metallic sensation in your mouth?John Keats fell in love and fell fatally ill within a short period of time, parting definitively from Fanny Brawne when it was concluded that the best chance he had of surviving...

The backward bin

John Keats' letters are full of wry humour and playfulness, interwoven with a rage to live and frustration and despair at the TB which killed him within a few years. Here, writing to his beloved Fanny Brawne, I delighted in his offering to be to her as...

A protagonist in a lost world

This suggests an expansive speaker with vast ideas; one who embraces the world, makes perorations rather than utterances, and generally waves his arms about as he speaks.Miller is a master of refreshing metaphors and similes. 'He always talked against a...

A warm Asiatic smile

You can feel the warmth of this beaming smile, lighting up someone's face, feeling like a loving arm wrapped about their shoulder. 'That warm Asiatic smile which always spread over his face like nectar and ambrosia.' See George Eliot for another surprising...

Scepticism on legs

A delightful accusation of a doubting Thomas, his whole body an agglomeration of questions and disbelief. 'Truly, you are a walking interrogation and disbelief endowed with arms.'   Source: Jose Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, trans....

On illusory madness

A fine description of Mervyn Peake's balance between bounding imagination and taut writing, rounded off with a vintage metaphor. 'It remains essentially a work of the closed imagination, in which a world parallel to our own is presented in almost paranoiac...

Slow words emerging

A halting mode of speech, the words slow-emerging, like the tearing of pages from a long-closed book. That is how Dante's translator presents us with the first encounter with Virgil, who would be his guide through much of his journey.   'His words...

All-encompassing flow

The cadence of this metaphor has the abundance and freshness of clear, flowing water. It likens Virgil, whom Dante views as the poet who taught him how to write, to multiple sources of inspiration: spring, well, fountain and river. This liquid idea...

As warm as …

A surprising simile, something as ordinary and comforting as warm tea, here poured differently to describe a stream of blood.  Steerpike is the worst person in the granite pile of Gormenghast - may we all be spared his scheming type. 'The blood, streaming...

As ripe as …

Swelter is assailed by life-sapping loathing for Flay, who returns the compliment.  Their battle is astounding for its intensity and outcome. Here a bursting simile for murderous hatred ready to pop. '... while Swelter, whose frustrated blood-lust was ripe...

As the falcon flies

Even the rhythm of this simile conveys something of a great bird's single, confident swoop to land precisely on a specific, awaiting glove. 'But flying, as the falcon to the gloveSwoops home when signalled.' For another sleek and powerful bird in flight,...

As dogs in summer

Desperate people, condemned to eternal infernal cruelties, are likened to dogs failing to fight off the tiny tormenting assaults of insects.   'On either side their hands beat in defence Now from the flames, now from the burning sand, As dogs in...

A milliner’s invention

Again, the charming Swelter, whose every move is offensive to one sense or another. See, for example, the sound of his feet when he walks. Here his gaping yawn makes nudity seem prim. 'He does not listen for an answer, but yawns, his face opening lewdly...

Sucking at stones

Swelter is one of the less attractive characters in Mervyn Peake's sprawling, crawling, mossy pile of forgotten granite, Gormenghast.  He consumes prodigious quantities of food and wine and is consumed by hatred (fully reciprocated). Peake depicts his...

Of guardian trees

A beautiful way to convey the kind, protective presence of someone quietly keeping an eye on the well-being of another.  I hope you have such benevolence in your life, from both people and trees. 'As the days passed he began to know her better, in the...

Quick as …

Not an eye you would want settling its penetrating gaze on you, giving you a cold adder-quick assessment through the lace curtains of its blood-alley veins. This is one of many descriptions of a quite terrifying individual.'So alive is it, this eye, quick...

As huge as …

Mervyn Peake is a fount of original similes and metaphors.  Given the granite-gothic ambiance of Gormenghast, it makes sense that 'huge' should evoke 'doom'. '... at their centre, between the brittle petals, lies a pool of indigo, translucent and as huge...

Like a wound…

A stunningly original depiction of the pink streaks of dawn resembling a sky-wound. '... as the dawn like a wound in the sky welled into her consciousness...' Source: Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan, introduction by Anthony Burgess (London: Vintage Books, 1998),...

Life lived as a rose trellis

One of Rilke's translators used this surprising and touching metaphor to describe him. I like the idea of being - figuratively - a human trellis for beauty to grow upon. 'Roses climb his life as if he were their trellis.' Source: Quoted in Year of Wonder,...

The sky fallen down

One of the most English of memories is bluebell tapestried woodland in April - I have a particular recollection of this sky-carpet in a wood in Devon. Combined with sunlight dappling through the early leaf canopy, it creates an intimacy of delicate colour,...

Like sticks of barley sugar

It's years since I saw a stick of barley sugar, and this perhaps dates Donald Hall's otherwise quite timeless writing. But I like the resemblance of a tower to a fat, straight confection.This is from a lovely book - Hall lived in Romania in the early part...

Bullocks under the bonnet

Imagine the car bucking and lurching over pot holes and road bumps, creating the random jolts and yanks of a rodeo ride.This is from a lovely book - Hall lived and travelled in Romania in the early part of the 20th century, and wrote this affectionate,...

Like a burst of hope

A heartening simile in a vivid, gripping narrative of humans ground between the shifting tectonic plates of contradictory but equally totalitarian ideologies. There is neither much sunshine nor hope in the book, but such hope as there is is tenacious and...

Like sunlight on a landscape

You can see an overcast English landscape of rolling hills and fields, and a sudden break in the clouds pierced by a spotlight of sunshine.  This is a lovely novel, with the sunny wit of Jane Austen and the earthiness of George Eliot.‘And as for Molly, her...

Nervous as horses

A jumpy, unsettling opening to a powerful page that drives to the source of fury in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. You can imagine horses prancing, shying, frisking, snorting and whinnying, eyeing askance an oncoming tempest. You can imagine that what's to...

Eyes like lakes

A surprising simile: lake-like eyes reflecting the sky.  Something touching too about the contrast of apparently wide open eyes, and a face that resembles a rocky, ugly landscape. 'His eyes were almost transparent as though in a country of ugly hills one...

Blank as a wall, wall as a blank

The identical twins Ladies Cora and Clarice aren't just lookalikes, but also one another's echo chambers.  They live in their own quarters of the rambling pile of Gormenghast, driving themselves round the bend with thirst for 'power' and its resulting...

Dark and small

What a powerful simile, conveying something inward-turning and dangerous through its vivid portrayal of cranial size as a small, corroded bullet. His skull was dark and small like a corroded musket bullet. For other bullet related metaphors and quotations,...

Reasoning in vain

A convincing form of fruitlessness, as it's hard to imagine a pious vulture.  The sister in question is an awkward customer, not easy for her entirely reasonable brother to reason with.'One glance at his sister was sufficient to make him realize that to...

Don’t stand there staring…

A colourful way to deter someone from staring at you and, in case of need, to insult your staff.  Stenching mules. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books are not only an imaginative masterpiece but also a ready sourcebook of new and inventive invective. Your...

As expressionless as …

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy is packed with original metaphor and simile.  In Titus Groan, the first book, I noted two similes for 'expressionless', both appropriate, though I think I prefer the second. See also his description of a blank stare.'Her...

Rain like remorse

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast has a lot of weather, giving an overwhelming impression of dismal, dank, damp, darkness of cloud, storm and rain. Here a storm rages until it exhausts its own anger and then just pours remorse onto the earth. 'They had waited...

Wasps quick-bending

One of the many stretch metaphors used by Homer. When you see a comma followed by 'as ...' it can be a signal to take a good intake of breath to carry you through to the end of the image. Here it is feisty bees and quick-bending wasps who convey the...

Sweet-running river

Flowing like the sweet-running river it evokes, a meandering metaphor for Hector's strength and movement, likened to a thoroughbred horse breaking free and seeking out its remembered watering spots and pastures.  Other riverine triologisms include:...

This is the world

Keats was one of the most life-loving people you could hope to meet, grasping with all his force every chance of happiness, even evanescent, and despite being repeatedly assaulted by unforgiving 'Circumstances'.  He looks life's fragility in the eye...

As cold as …

A letter from Keats to his beloved Fanny, with a kindly injunction to wrap up warmly.  I loved the solicitude and the bracingly original simile for a chill wind.'You will be as cold as a topsail in a north latitude – I advise you to furl yourself.'...

A sky of rags

A marvelous view of a heavily clouded sky; you can imagine vast firmament rags being saturated with water by a giant hand, before being crumple-stuffed into the welkin.'... and above the blurred outline of the Twisted Woods the sky was choked with crumpled...

Fuchsia and ruby

A gift from the eccentric but kind-hearted and protective physician to the young daughter of the Earl and Countess of Gormenghast, slightly neglected by her parents for being but a girl, and having a certain shyness and feistiness.A striking description...

Sourdust’s skin

Sourdust is the aged, dusty, crumbling Master of Ceremonies and custodian of endless ritual, rites and rules in the world of Gormenghast castle, having digested a thousand tomes of protocol.  He shuffles and coughs his way in reminding the Earl, Countess...

Prunesquallor’s voice

The physician of Gormenghast is one of the most likeable, humane and sane of the colourful characters that people the story; while being every bit as idiosyncratic as the rest of them. His strange voice is complemented by a slightly grating,...

A rolling boulder

Nanny Slagg meets an old man of the Dwellers, the humble people who live limpet-like on the outer walls of Gormenghast castle.  Here he greets the castle's envoy with the deference expected.  The description of his voice suggests a low-frequency...

Newly born, oldly wise

A lilting double simile here, each with a timeless simplicity.  Let's add them to the common stock and start to describe things as being 'old as the world', or 'wise as the roots of trees'.  Or you could shorten the last one to 'wise as trees', given our...

Rich with rust

An unusual simile for rust, though of course, once seen, it seems natural. A beech hedge in winter has an intense and often uniform rust colour. '... and the corners were stacked with old weapons that were as rich with rust as a hedge of winter beech.' See...

Ignoring your foes

You can see Mr Flay side-stepping the presence of his mortal foe, Swelter, as one side-steps other unpleasantness in one's path. Perhaps he could delicately pinch his fingers to his nose to preserve himself from any sweltering smells.'It had therefore been...

Foxy fickle

Foxes have had a bad press due to their apparent wiliness.  Whether justified or not, this alliterative allusion deserves to enter common usage. Please, next time you refer to someone as fickle, use this vulpine simile. '... as fickle as a fox.' See...

Beware the bureau mind

Steerpike is icily calculating and glacially manipulative.  He doesn't have a warm emotion to his name beyond the impulse to self-advancement by any means and the satisfaction of seeing human puppets dance to his tunes. An extreme version of a common...

How the other half lives

Gormenghast has two populations segregated by the walls of the rambling castle. The people outside are treated as lower order beings, but some individuals among them are portrayed with sympathy and admiration, throwing their humble nobility into sharp...

Towering insult

Gormenghast is a vast, sprawling town of a castle, which seems to have spread organically.  Here one of its towers is likened to an aggressive finger, jabbing at heaven.  See, as a contrast, the similarly graphic description of the hovels limpet-glued to...

Vague but unmistakable

A perfectly horrific way to intimate the dreadful anticipation of a mortal enemy.  Here Flay realizes, when the hated Chef finally appears in his teeming, steaming subterranean domain, that he had been sensing him all the time, like the growth of a...

As though unweaned

The birth of the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, innocent Titus Groan, gives celebratory license to the scullions and other assorted assistants and slaves of the Great Kitchen, to drink themselves into stupor.  Here they are portrayed like starving babes at the...

Firsthtly…

The chef is a Rabelasian character oozing excess, and none too likeable. The birth of Titus, 77th Earl of Gormenghast, gives him and his underlings license to drink to oblivion in scenes redolent of Brueghel. Apart from being able to produce gargantuan...

Collective contentment

Among the most cherished beings in Mervyn Peake's sprawling, imaginative Gormenghast, are the teeming masses of white cats belonging to the Countess.  She has more love for furred and feathered friends than for humans, even those of her own producing,...

As sharp as …

A flint-chip razor simile for a beak's sharpness. Elsewhere in Tarka we encounter birds skewering frogs through the head with their beaks, or otherwise impaling prey. 'Its beak was sharp as a rock-splinter.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the...

Moon as feather

A lyrical description of the sun, the moon, and the dreams of an otter - that he might swim, unhunted and unhungry, down to the sea with his otter-son. The metaphor makes it seem a wispy crescent moon lying smile-curved in the sky, and so resembling a...

A cry like …

Williamson pays close attention to the calls and cries of birds and animals, and here he distinguishes between the mutual call of a dog and a bitch otter. I found the description of White-tip's cry extraordinary. 'White-tip answered him. Her cry was like...

Like fighting polar bears

What a way to capture the roar of a powerful river in full flux. '... back into the lower river again, which roared and heaved like fighting polar bears.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death in the two rivers,...

As quick as …

Tarka the otter is hunted but fights ferociously and strategically. Here he bites back as hounds close in. He gives as good as he gets. See another image for speed conveyed by the slither of a viper, and one drawing on a quick drip tempo. 'Tarka bit and...

As fast as …

How fast can a pattering heart beat?  As fast as water can drip before it starts dribbling. You can't quantify that transition, but you know it when you see it. Other speed similes use a viper to convey quickness: one by Williamson and another by...

Like a broken viper

A wildly meandering river likened to a viper broken by a buzzard - Williamson's inventiveness is a wonder, and almost always nature-drawn. 'Seen by day from the hilltops, the river lay its course like a viper broken by a buzzard's beak and claws, marked...

Big blackberries

A berry crushed into service as a metaphor for a mud-mark. 'Tarka's deep seals in the lower ooze showed like big blackberries crushed in the mud.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death in the two rivers, illus....

O dandelion sun!

A big round dandelion arching the sky - what a deep yellow sun this is, and I like the 'light-smitten height' too. 'When the sun, like an immense dandelion, looked over the light-smitten height of Cosdon Beacon, Tarka was returning along a lynch, or rough...

Of bitterns and beaks

A moss stalk and seed likened to a bird and beak.  Lovely. 'Over and under and past boulders of granite, splashing upon mosses, whose browny-red seeds on the tall stalks were like bitterns standing with beaks upheld.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka...

As silent as …

Another simile for silence, here combined murderously with talons sharp as black frost.  See other silent similes by Williamson and by Charlotte Bronte. 'Silent as snow and fog, staring like the Northern Lights, taloned like black frost, the Arctic Owl...

Of flakes and feathers

How perfect an image for snow-flakes - like swan feathers drifting gently to the ground. Elsewhere, Williamson again uses feathers as a metaphor, to describe the moon. 'As Greymuzzle walked on the ice upstream, snow began to fall in flakes like the...

Wind like liquid glass

An astonishingly limpid description of the clarity a wind pours over a landscape. 'For two days and two nights the frosty vapour lay over the Burrows, and then came a north wind which poured like liquid glass from Exmoor and made all things distinct.'...

Tar marks

Otters are voracious piscivores so it's appropriate to liken the black marks they have left to fish-bones. And let's not forget the Greek-based unpronounceable answer to the Latinate piscivore: ichthyophagous.  Save that one for your next spelling test....

Of beetle fragments and spider tunnels

What an intricate way to describe a shipwreck pulled apart by tidal ebb and flow. It also reminds me of the novel by Italo Calvino, The Path to the Spiders' Nests, which describes small grassy gates woven by spiders - see insert. '... a destroyer lay...

Of pebble-play and glass-green

A lasting impression of Tarka the Otter is of the playfulness of these and other creatures. Tarka plays with anything to hand or paw: a water spout, a pebble, a dung-ball, a cocoa can. Here he is intrigued by a water-smoothed glass pebble, and Williamson...

Bright and blinking

An alliterative description of a bone-like beacon. 'The bright eye of the light-house standing like a bleached bone at the edge of the sandhills, blinked in the clear air.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death...

Poplars in November

Yes, poplars look like giant feathers poked in the ground, here bedraggled by the onset of winter. 'In November the poplars were like bedraggled gull-feathers stuck in the ground.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and...

As smooth as …

Of course, this simile is obvious when you see it, but have you ever seen it before?  Please try incorporating it into your simile-store. 'Over fall he slid, smooth as oil.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death...

Scent as colour

I like metaphors that use one of our five senses to convey another - here a visual image serves as a metaphor for a scent. And I must still be a child as vivid colours catch my attention more than ever. 'The scents of the ducks were thick and luring as...

A luminous grub

Never have I seen the moon likened to a luminous cocoon-spinning grub... wonderful. 'At night the young moon was like a luminous grub spinning a cocoon around itself in the sky.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and...

Of curling waves

Tarka the otter enjoys his first exposure to the sea, with a wave being likened appropriately to a shell-fish. 'A wavelet lifted Tarka and passed behind him, another curled like a long razor-fish shell and broke over him. He shook the water from his...

As serene as …

A novel image for serenity. Use it next time you are describing someone or something serene. 'He was serene as glass.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847)), p. 518 Photo credit: MichaelGaida at...

As still as …

So even the regular church-going Victorians only did their duty on Sundays. A nice way to convey stillness - an empty church on a week-day. 'It was as still as a church on a week-day.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012...

As powerless as …

Bronte has a wonderful range of simile and metaphor, here demonstrated in powerlessness being likened to stubble thrown into a furnace. See also another of her images of vulnerability. 'Physically, I felt, at the moment, powerless as stubble exposed to the...

A quivering of shattered pinions

What a potent, heart-rending image of longing, echoing the Spanish word for lame or broken-winged, aliquebrado. See an earlier image of impotent vulnerability in Jane Eyre. '... only a sad heart broke it. ... it demanded him with ceaseless longing; and,...

Hollow like …

Did you ever think of the sky as being hollow?  I like the image of its domed roundness as the inside of a mussel shell. 'At midnight the western sky was pale blue and hollow like a mussel-shell on the seashore.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the...

Of merry audacious jays

Two fine metaphors here, describing the nature and the cry of jays, though the first of these is by now no doubt politically incorrect. I like also the 'noise of tearing linen'. 'They were among birds what the Irish are among men, always ready in a merry...

Of kingfisher colours

This description of a Halcyon Kingfisher packs a rainbow of colour metaphors, from pink to green to blue and brown.  Elsewhere the book describes hunted kingfishers strung up sans wings, their exquisite feathers being used for female fashion plumage. And...

Of buds and hooves

Who would think to liken the shape of a bud to the hooves of cattle? And that cuckoo singing all night! 'The buds of the ash, sullen for so long in their coverings shaped like the black hooves of cattle, broke into browny-green sprays.  The cuckoo sang all...

A cord of connection

Here Mr. Rochester conveys his connection to Jane Eyre and the vulnerability it causes inside.  Attachment made physical. '... it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in a...

A linnet of hope

Birds are regularly used by Bronte as emblems of vulnerability or fragility - here this small creature is depicted as a source of hope. 'It seemed as if a linnet had hopped to my foot and proposed to bear me on its tiny wing.'   Source: Charlotte...

Of gander and falcon

A surprising juxtaposition of birds to convey a contrast. '... the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847)), p. 247 Photo credit:...

As lively as …

You can imagine the spark lighting up a prim Victorian drawing room, when the sexes are brought together within a confined space. 'The ladies, since the gentlemen entered, have become lively as larks...'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London:...

As pale as …

Henry Williamson is a master of metaphor and simile, and his slim book Tarka the Otter is as densely scattered with them as a healthy meadow with flower seeds. 'When the moon gleamed out of the clouds in the east, pale and wasted as a bird in snow, the...

As soft as …

Having never even noticed the buds of the willow, this simile for softness and greyness struck me. How observant of Williamson to store this away as a description of otter's fur.  But then his whole book is an exercise in meticulous and painstaking...

As large as …

An unusual simile for size, here referring to bubbles. Bubbles feature largely in Tarka the Otter, often blown by the otter himself as he swims beneath the water or as an expression of fear. 'Near the bridge the bubbles rose as large as oak-apples.'  ...

Silent as …

Another richly original simile for silence, here attributed to the noiseless movement of a rolling mist. See another silent simile by Williamson, and a mist-related one in Jane Eyre. 'Over the meadow a mist was moving, white and silent as the fringe of...

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